In what is tantamount to every arachnophobia's worst nightmare, scientists have managed to train a spider to jump on command.
Rather than creating a tiny spider army, the researchers have been using the adorable little regal jumping spider – which they affectionately named Kim – to help them understand exactly how these tiny animals manage to leap so far, and hopefully help them create better robots that can do something similar. Their results have been published this week in Scientific Reports.
“The focus of the present work is on the extraordinary jumping capability of these spiders,” explained Dr Mostafa Nabawy, who led the study. “A jumping spider can leap up to six times its body length from a standing start. The best a human can achieve is about 1.5 body lengths.”
The team actually started off with four spiders at the beginning of the experiment, but only Kim seemed to have the nous needed to master the commands. They got her to complete a number of jumping tasks while filming all the action with ultra-high-speed and high-resolution cameras to make sure they didn’t miss a thing.
The researchers got Kim to jump a short distance, roughly twice her body length, a longer distance some six times her body length, and then various other exercises, such as jumping up to higher surfaces and down to lower ones. All the time they were trying to figure out exactly how she was managing to do so, and how she altered her jumps in response to the different tasks being asked of her.
It turns out that when presented with the shorter distances, Kim would use a more energy intensive – and accurate – hop from platform to platform, increasing the chances that she might catch any prey. When given a longer distance, however, she would jump in a more efficient but less accurate manner.
The work is also able to shed light on how the tiny spiders achieve their big leaps. We’ve known for about 50 years that their legs contain a hydraulic pressure system that helps them extend their multitude of limbs, but weren’t sure how this was used in real life.
“Our results suggest that whilst Kim can move her legs hydraulically, she does not need the additional power from hydraulics to achieve her extraordinary jumping performance,” said Dr Bill Crowther. “Thus, the role of hydraulic movement in spiders remains an open question.”
Teaching spiders to jump on command might seem quite bizarre, but the researchers think that it could give us some vital insights into how we can design better robots. Current engineering technology means that producing anything on the scale of these amazingly agile spiders is unthinkable, but by understanding and potentially mimicking nature, perhaps we might be able to achieve it.